Jeff Nichols on Midnight Special, Michael Shannon and saying no to Aquaman

The next Spielberg? Jeff Nichols is the best filmmaker you've never heard of.

Midnight Special
Into the light Midnight Special's Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is gifted with mysterious powers. Image Picture eOne

If Batman v Superman left a sour taste in the mouth, the perfect palate cleanser might just be Midnight Special.

The fourth film from Jeff Nichols, it tracks a father and his super-powered son as they drive cross-country to keep him away from a religious cult and the US military. Is the kid a saviour, a weapon or something else entirely?

Already a hit on the film festival circuit, Midnight Special has seen many dub writer-director Nichols the next Steven Spielberg. It’s easy to see why – for the tense car journey across the American heartland, look no further than Spielberg’s debut Duel; for the science fiction spin, see Close Encounters and ET.

In an age when superhero films amp up spectacle in favour of story, Midnight Special feels like a clever twist on a popular genre.

Like each of Nichols previous critically acclaimed movies – Shotgun Stories, Taken Shelter and Mud – it also features a killer performance from Michael Shannon. Loaded sat down with Nichols to discuss his intense working relationship with Shannon, the truth behind his involvement in the Aquaman movie and how he was a key player in The McConaissance.

Loaded: What was the lightbulb moment for you with Midnight Special?

Nichols: These things do always start with an image. With this film, it was idea of two guys in a car moving fast in the backroads at night. Pretty quickly, I came up with the title and made it this sci-fi government chase film. I had the plot, but that didn’t give it any purpose. I had to attach it to something emotional.

I started thinking about my son. I was in my first year of fatherhood and it was this palpable emotion that I have no control over whether my son dies. And at some point he’ll grow up and leave me. That’s what Michael Shannon’s character is dealing with. He’s trying to define what his son needs, so that when he leaves he’s ready.

Loaded: Given your working relationship with Michael Shannon, was he one of the two men driving the car in your initial image?

Nichols: He was. It was on the set of Take Shelter and I told him ‘I want to make this chase film and you’re driving the car.’ I ended up relegating him to the passenger seat, and had Joel Edgerton drive. He was there from the beginning.

Midnight Special
Family on the run Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher and Kirsten Dunst. Image Picture eOne

Loaded: He has a reputation for being quite intense – four films in with him what is he like on set?

Nichols: He is intense. He’s nice, but incredibly focused. Everybody kind of tenses up. Not because they’re scared of him, we’ve worked together with the same crew over and over again. They tense up because they know that he’s there to do work and it focuses everybody else, because they want to live up to that. I know that’s how I feel about it – I just don’t want to let him down.

He’s there and he’s going to do something painful, because of something I wrote. He’ll have his arm bitten by a dog or a daughter taken from him or his son taken to certain death – this is what we show up at work in the morning to do. So he’s not showing up going ‘Hey, buddy, what’s going on? Ha ha ha.’

Loaded: There’s a shot where Alton reads a Superman comic. Given the film is about a Midwestern father and mother trying to protect their super-powered son – was that any kind of inspiration for you?

Nichols: I grew up reading comic books. And do you want to know what the real answer is? The honest to god answer was, I needed the kid to be doing something in the backseat of that car. I needed him to be doing something so he wasn’t in the situation of just saying: ‘Dad, what’s going on? When we gonna eat?’ That’s what normal kids do. We took the idea that Lucas had comics in his closet and gave them to the kid.

He’d been cloistered away on this religious ranch and had never seen anything like this before – it’s like giving him crack! That made sense to me. But that’s what’s amazing about films. If you establish a film as not disposable, if you challenge people by taking information away, you have to activate your mind a bit to watch this film. The audience can start activating on things I never even realised. Like what is the significance of that comic?

Midnight Special Superman comic
The new Spielberg? Jeff Nichols channels Duel and Close Encounters for his latest film. Image Picture eOne

Loaded: What’s the significance of the boy’s powers? The light emitting from his eyes and hands?

Nichols: This is hard to talk about without spoilers, but the boy to me felt like a conduit between two places. How does the universe communicate with us? The answer is light. The reason we know about stars is because they send us light. It made sense that the language would be light and it’d come out of his eyes. It’s the pathway to the soul and all that. I’ve read some things online saying ‘He’s ripping off this, he’s ripping off that’. Maybe, but not really. I was just trying to think pragmatically about what I wanted him to be. Maybe the conceit wasn’t original, but it supported the logic.

Loaded: You were at one point pegged to direct an Aquaman movie – why didn’t that happen?

Nichols: I was at Warner Bros when they were really looking to attach people to this massive slate of DC Comics films. It was around the time I was showing them the director’s cut of Midnight Special and they were pleased with it. They liked me and liked what we were doing, so they said, ‘Is there anything you want to be thinking about?’ I told them Aquaman. They said, ‘Great, here’s some cash, go and think about it.’ They also had seven other guys thinking about it. My connection with Aquaman was leaked through the Sony hack. It came out of an email between two executives that didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.

I wasn’t officially signed on to direct, I was one of seven people thinking about it. It was really an inaccurate thing that was published. Warner Bros were honest and upfront, they were just trying to see if someone could come up with something cool. I came up with my ideas and I really liked them and they really liked them, oddly enough. But they didn’t fit into these other components because it’s a multiverse, a connected universe they’re building. My piece didn’t fit into their puzzle. It was pretty obvious to us all that it was really cool and it would be fun, but it wasn’t going to work out.

Loaded: Is it the kind of film you’d like to make at some point?

Nichols: I’d love to, but it’s a pretty tough gauntlet to get through. I’d love to make a big movie like that, but it’s going to go through the same process and probably get shot down by me or by someone understanding how I make films and not be willing to give me that control. That’s the only way I know how to do it – look someone in the eye and say ‘This is exactly what I’m going to deliver you’. I think it could happen, it’s possible. What I hope is, it’s possible on something I write from scratch. But then you don’t have the power of that library title.

Jeff Nichols and Matthew McConaughey
McConaissance Jeff Nichols wrote Mud with Matthew McConaughey in mind for the lead role. Image Picture eOne

Loaded: You cast Matthew McConaughey in Mud, which was one of the films that helped revive his career. Was that an instance of having to stick to your guns and convince people he could do it?

Nichols: I wrote it for him. I was telling people back in college that I was working on a movie for Matthew McConaughey. I was kind of the North Star in that particular instance, I wasn’t shifting. Some of the financiers and producers were saying there was absolutely no way we can make this with him. They were pretty adamant about it.

His trajectory had not begun in a way that anyone was aware of. But what’s great about Matthew and shows how smart he is, when he came to us he not only had Killer Joe in the can,he had Magic Mike and The Paperboy too. He was well on his way before he even came to us; he was pulling the levers to reinvent his career. It was difficult, I had to tell a lot of people ‘I wrote this for Matthew McConaughey’ and they’d just look at me like I was crazy. But it was worth it.

Midnight Special opens in cinemas on April 8.

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